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How Downtown L.A. Became a Place to Live (without Parking)

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws -- as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert -- may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Adaptive Reuse Ordinance
Year: 1999
Jurisdiction: City of Los Angeles
Nominated by: Don Shoup, Nate Wittasek

During an almost thirty-year period beginning in 1970, Downtown Los Angeles gained a grand total of 4,300 units in housing stock.

Then, between 1999 and 2008, Downtown gained at least 7,300 housing units just from long-term vacant buildings.

What accounts for that tremendous uptick? Many factors, of course; but at least in the policy realm, arguably none are nearly as significant as the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, or "ARO."

Passed by the L.A. City Council in -- yes -- 1999 and at first applied only to Downtown, ARO gave the go-ahead for the conversion of historic and other older -- and often under-used, under-appreciated or even abandoned -- office buildings into residences. ARO was expanded in 2003 into various other parts of the city.

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"[The Ordinance] provides for an expedited approval process and ensures that older and historic building are not subjected to the same zoning and code requirements that apply to new construction," reads text on the city's Office of Historic Resources site.

"The effect of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance cannot be understated in how important it to the success and support of all of these other elements," Nate Wittasek says. Those other elements Wittasek mentions include a move away from urban core decay and a move towards a more pedestrian-centric environment.

Wittasek is a senior managing engineer at the consulting firm, Exponent, and one of the first people to nominate to this column the ARO as a "Law That Shaped L.A." Another person who did the same: Donald Shoup, the inimitable "parking rock star" UCLA urban planning professor.

Shoup, Cal Poly Professor Rick Willson are among the folks who have also nominated "minimum parking requirement" as a corollary to Adaptive Reuse. [Read the related recent Laws That Shaped L.A. column, "The Roots of Sprawl: Why We Don't Live Where We Work."

The housing stock increase statistics at the beginning of this column come from an American Planning Association Planning magazine article by Shoup that the professor kindly sent this column's way. Titled, "Yes, Parking Reform is Possible," the piece is subtitled, "A progress report from the author of The High Cost of Free Parking."

Shoup's article brings up case studies from throughout the country -- particularly New York and California -- that demonstrate what the peerless professor has been arguing for years. Which is, essentially, that traditional parking policies are nuts -- this column's word not his -- and that reform is both preferable as well as possible.

Shoup's article notes that pre-ARO, developers were required per each housing unit to provide two or more parking spaces. Those spaces, Shoup emphasizes in his piece, were required to be on-site.
Pacific Electric Building long before loft conversion, ca. 1910-1919 | Courtesy of the USC Digital Library
Post-ARO, Shoup's piece says that the average number of on-site parking spaces fell to 0.9 in those converted, previously vacant buildings. Including off-site parking, the number was still 1.3 spaces per unit. That's a 65% drop in required parking spaces in an area where many residents already self-select to reside in for reasons unrelated to having a multi-car garage.

Shoup, in his article, puts parking into the larger historic core picture:

"The ARO produced other benefits as well. It encouraged the preservation of many wonderful buildings that were in terrible condition and might have been demolished if minimum parking requirements had remained in place. Historic buildings are a scarce resource in any city, and the evidence shows that parking requirements stood in the way of preserving these buildings."

Wittasek, during a recent conversation, talks about the deeper roots of zoning laws that led to the eventual necessity for ARO. Those roots include the Industrial Revolution and Euclidean zoning versus performance or incentive zoning.

Wittasek, who was previously mentioned in this column about "Why is the Los Angeles Skyline So Bland," also talks about the feedback loop between adaptive reuse and nearby attractions such as Staples Center (opened 1999), Disney Hall (2003) and L.A. Live. (2007).

"You need all the legs of the stool in place," Wittasek says. "You need the residential. You need the work opportunities and the [social] life opportunities."

Wittasek adds: "You could argue that people who go to Disney Hall certainly don't necessarily live Downtown, and you'd be right. But I think on the whole it would be a mistake to suggest that those types of isolated developments could work as islands without a sea of people around it."

Arguments -- reasonable and unreasonable -- against ARO can turn into arguments against development, or against developers. [This revisits this column's recent CEQA piece and a foreshadows an upcoming follow-up.]

"The argument," Wittasek says, "is less regulation encourages people to develop. I don't necessarily believe that. I don't think that many developers just stop developing because of regulations. What they stop developing for is if they can't make money."

Another ARO line up inquiry wonders if historic buildings are threatened or damaged by conversions? Or, when done legally and well, are they revivified vessels ignored no more?

"Adaptive Reuse," Wittasek says, "tries to respect the historical significance of structures while still giving them life."

Top: Pacific Electric Building, after 2005 conversion into lofts. By Valerita used under a Creative Commons License.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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